Boris Johnson on Tuesday faced renewed criticism of his handling of the “partygate” scandal after fresh allegations emerged of a culture of routine drinks events at Downing Street during the pandemic.
Three attendees present during the gatherings told the BBC that staff saw themselves as being in their “own bubble”, with a lack of adherence to social distancing and face masks and regular boozy gatherings.
“The event invites for Friday press office drinks were just nailed into the diary,” one individual told the BBC’s Panorama programme. These were known as “Wine-Time Friday” and were often scheduled into the calendars at 4pm, but sources told the broadcaster that it was not unheard of to arrive for work at Number 10 on many days of the week and find “bottles, empties, rubbish” from gatherings the previous evening.
One former staffer described the difficulties faced by eyewitnesses who tried to raise concerns. “I remember when a custodian tried to stop it all and he was just shaking his head in this party, being like, ‘This shouldn’t be happening’,” they said. “People made fun of him because he was so worked up that this party was happening.”
Earlier this week, ITV News published photographs showing Johnson raising a glass from behind a table cluttered with bottles of alcohol at an event at Number 10 on November 13 2020 to mark the departure of then communications director Lee Cain.
One individual told the BBC that during this event there were 30 people gathering in a room, with individuals “stood shoulder to shoulder”. They added: “Some people on each other’s laps . . . one or two people.”
Johnson was fined for attending a gathering to celebrate his birthday in Downing Street on June 19 2020, but did not receive a penalty for attending Cain’s leaving event.
The Metropolitan Police said it would be not be adding any further comments to the statement it issued on May 19 announcing the conclusion of its probe. In total, 126 fixed penalty notices were issued to 83 people.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, on Tuesday joined calls for the Met to explain why the prime minister escaped censure when at least one other person at the party was fined.
A spokesperson for Khan said the mayor had written to Sir Stephen House, the acting Met commissioner, on Tuesday seeking a “detailed explanation of the factors which were taken into account by investigating officers when decisions were made about whether to take action in individual cases in the Downing Street partygate investigation”.
“He has asked them to take steps to also reassure Londoners by making this explanation to them directly, because he is concerned that the trust and confidence of Londoners in the police is being further eroded by this lack of clarity,” the spokesperson said.
Senior civil servant Sue Gray is expected to publish her report into coronavirus rule breaking in Whitehall later this week. Her findings are expected to be highly critical of Johnson, as well as civil servants — including cabinet secretary Simon Case.
Johnson is also facing an investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee, which examines the conduct of MPs, into whether he lied to parliament.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps, speaking before the Panorama revelations were published, on Tuesday rejected suggestions that Johnson misled parliament about his conduct and that of his staff throughout the pandemic. “He did not knowingly lie,” he said speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
However, the latest revelations have sparked growing unease among Conservative backbenchers.
“I believe that the PM has misled the HoC’s from the despatch box. That is a resignation issue,” veteran Tory MP and longtime Johnson critic Sir Roger Gale wrote on Twitter. “I have made my own position clear. It is now a matter for my Conservative parliamentary colleagues to decide whether or not to instigate a vote of no confidence.”
Meanwhile, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat warned that the partygate scandal was having an impact on the government’s reputation. “Seriousness in government matters. It costs us all,” he told the BBC. “And I’m afraid this just doesn’t look serious.”